The Japanese Pagans Don’t Loot?

Japan’s people are primary affiliated with Buddhism and/or Shintoism, yet even that has a largely secular and loose flavor.  Their moral fabric is very different from the various American moral fabrics. And there is no truer test of morality than a disaster.

I was not surprised by the reports of the relative scarcity of looting after the recent Japanese devastation when compared to the looting in the Haiti and Chile earthquakes, the England floods, and the Louisiana hurricane — and all those countries have large Christian influences.  However, the lack of looting in pagan Japan probably seems odd to Christians who feel that true morality only springs from a love (and fear) of their Jehovah.   I wonder how that sort of Christian explains this in their mind.

During my seven years in Japan I was always awkwardly adjusting to the Japanese moral fabric: obligation, shame, self-effacement, neatness, thriftiness, family, non-standing-outness, industriousness and much more.  And though much of it was hard for me and a bad fit, I was often a benefactor of this system.  For instance, being a forgetful soul, I lost my cash-laden wallet several times in Japan and each time had it returned intact by friendly strangers.  Another huge example is when a close Scottish friend’s house burned down, his Japanese neighbors (who hardly knew him) gathered together all sorts of support while the foreign community (who knew him well) barely lifted a finger.

The web of ethics in Japan is rich and deep.  But it is not Buddhist, not Shinto, it is complexly Japanese.  Likewise, US ethics is not Christian, Jewish or otherwise.  Sure, religion can influence ethics, but it is only part of the picture.  Ethics is much deeper than religion — to think otherwise is naive.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

14 responses to “The Japanese Pagans Don’t Loot?

  1. DaCheese

    I think this is true, and it explains a lot of the disconnect between Christian teaching and Christian behavior. Jesus said “love thy neighbor”, yet American Christians shun the needy; Jesus railed against the rich and against money lenders, yet Christians revere rich bankers; etc.

    I think one of the traditional functions of religion was to reinforce local cultural norms, by putting the force of divine punishment behind them. But in the modern world you have major religions that dominate in cultures very different from the ones in which they originated, which leads to fundamental disconnects and tortured re-interpretations of dogma.

  2. I’ll have to disagree here — apparently the general stereotypes of mass scale looting in other places after natural disasters is largely a case of urban+racist myths and in most places people’s responses are close to those in Japan

    Also as per the link above I think very problematic to describe as looting something that largely consists of people breaking into stores to look for food to survive.

    Which is of course not to say that there aren’t other situations where Japan wouldn’t have law and order where other countries would experience looting. I think something like a police department strike would be a better test.

  3. DaCheese

    That’s a good point, Michael, but even there I think there’s a cultural difference at work. According to reports, a lot of Japanese store owners have been making a point to stay open and in some cases giving food away willingly. So the “looting” for survival hasn’t been as much of an issue, because no one had to break in to get to the food, etc.

  4. Even better question – is it Christianity or the version of capitalism used in the West that produces the ‘need’ for looting?

  5. JS Allen

    Apparently, the Japanese were not so docile during the 1923 earthquake.

  6. Yes, they weren’t yet a liberal secular democracy. It explains much…

  7. @ Michael :
    Your statement is probably the most important to address right away. The question is essential empirical. But for the sake of the argument, even if looting was the same, my point about how disasters test moral fabric remains. And more importantly that countries that may consider themselves “Christian” certain fair no better.

    That aside, though the question of biases in reporting perpetuating myths, is important and I appreciat you bringing it up. Soint’s point in the Huffington Post article you pointed to (through boing-boing) states my point about morality being deeper than religion by saying, “that [the social support in disasters] is probably part of an evolved instinct inherent to our species.”

    But are there other racist, social, nationalistic myths feeding reporting — I am sure there are. So that part of your point is well taken. Thank you.

    @ Da Cheese :
    As I wrote Michael, it is not that I am saying Christian countries are bad, but that when moral fabric is tested, we may be surprised to see that noone holds the trump card due to their [state] religion.

    @ SocietyVS :
    Yes, I know about your “I hate capitalism” mantra. Japan is a capitalist i country just like the USA and the flavor of consumerism and competition is, by law, essentially the same. So sorry, you can’t force this data to fit you theory.

    @ JS Allen :
    Yep, the Japanese have a huge xenophobic, we-are-culturally-superior, racist aspect to their history. The slaughter of Koreans after the Kanto earthquake was a horrible illustration. I ran into many folks with this hatred during my time in Japan.

    @ tildeb :
    That was sarcasm, right?

  8. I would definitely agree that Christian countries/cultures do not fare better either. I think some of the historical examples show (eg. the riots from the 1920s earthquake) that how people respond is dependent on a number of idiosyncratic causes which religion and culture certainly contribute to but which are also affected by politics, economics etc. As another example, I was surprised to learn several years ago that during the Kobe earthquake one of the largest rescue efforts was by the yakuza which mobilised en masse to hand out diapers, provide supplies etc.

    In terms of giving away food willingly again it looks like the historical examples show that this would be a common behaviour even for people we would consider “evil” (see yakuza, earthquake). I think where the stores are closed there would be other confounding factors again — for instance with Katrina the fact that half the town moved out with the warnings thereby closing stores. Also in Japan the stores that would be giving away supplies are likely to be outside the immediately affected area — but in New Orleans the authorities essentially cut the city off from the outside deliberately and at gunpoint again making the breaking into stores a fairly natural and logical response.

  9. No, it was meant to remind JSAllen that social values as indicated by rates of negative social behaviour is closely correlated to rates of religiosity, which is also negatively correlated to levels of general education and the values of personal responsibility, and not culture. We expect to and do find the more authoritarian the local social structure is, the higher the rates of the use of violence in families. It stands to reason that when the authoritarian control is lifted in the case of a natural disaster, the local behaviour would be maintained and extended as a coping mechanism and we would see an increase in social unrest met with violence. For populations that value individual responsibility, we would not see the same kinds of behaviours… and we don’t.

    My point is to compare apples to apples in that the Japan of pre-WWII is not the same Japan that emerged after it even though the culture remains the same.

  10. @tildeb – Obviously something was different between the Kanto earthquake and now, but I’m not convinced that democracy is the key difference. I would theorize that globalization is more important than democracy in the difference we see today.

    Your theory suggests that the cause of violence in Kanto was an authoritarian social structure, but I’m more inclined to think that the violence was the result of xenophopia (as Sabio said). There is a genetic link to collectivism in east asian culture, and a higher risk of xenophobia is part and parcel of a collectivist culture that de-emphasizes individuality. There are probably several factors that lead to reduced Japanese xenophobia today: globalization, increased prosperity, new social norms.

  11. Ed

    Hi Sabio… please excuse me for being naive here… I am just looking for some clarification. Your last sentence of this post left me wondering how you meant that ethics is deeper than religion. How in this statement are you defining ethics and religion?

    I am thinking that it would be perceiving each situation that would matter. The ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Bhagavad Gita and say, Lao Tsu are as ethical as anything… as I see it. I understand that religion as practiced is almost never as ethical as it’s teachings… but those that profess ethics in stead of religion are often as unethical as the rest of us. I am just curious to hear your comments on this. Thanks…

  12. @ Michael
    I lived in the Kobe area and left 6 years before it hit. My entire old neighborhood was destroyed. One of my closest Japanese friends was Yakuza. I did not know the story about their aid, but it does not surprise me.

    I agree, any analysis is complicated and we need to be careful about glib conclusions.

    @ tildeb
    Ahhh, I thought it was meant for Society. I liked your analysis. Thank you.

    @ JS Allen
    Heck, maybe even the policies of the occupations force influenced Japan — no matter how politically incorrect that is to think. Even many older Taiwanese I met feel the Japanese occupation actually helped their country in the long term. But I have not studied that issue.

    Maybe the Xenophobia is part and parcel of authoritarian structure which uses these biases as one of many tools to tame the populace to not revolt against the totalitarian regime. But I am definitely out of my league here. Just wanted to take a fun jump in the pool with the smarter chaps!

    @ Ed
    Hey, I answered your comment way back here and you never replied.
    Now, on to this comment.
    We have ethics with or without religions — something religious folks often find hard to believe. The ethics we learn by mimicking as children and as we mix our temperament with our environment — way before we get taught doctrine– is the ethics that is deeper than religion. Does that help?

  13. Ed

    @ Sabio… your last comment helps in that I understand what you are saying, but disagree from one perspective. You know I am not a fan of practicing religion. I believe that we should give up religions and religious practices and cast ourselves upon life itself… But that is not the point here.

    I think that we can learn the ethics of our parent’s religion (by observation and mimicking) long before we learn their religious doctrine? Where am I wrong here?

  14. Hey Ed
    I totally agree with your last paragraph.

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